Back at the front

Uploaded 21 Nov @ 14:08pm

Since Nigel Atherton regained ownership of XYZ Machine Tools the company has grown both in size and product portfolio. M&MT visited the company’s impressive 98,000 ft2 headquarters in Devon to catch up with the latest developments and to find out what’s next.

When Nigel Atherton sold XYZ Machine Tools to Southwestern Industries, developer of the ProtoTRAK control systems that had been fitted to XYZ machines for a number of years, he was asked to stay on as Managing Director. As he recalls: “I had not had a boss since my early 20s, but I didn’t mind having Rich Leonhard in that position as I trusted him, and we had become very good friends.

“Rich stated ‘when I take over the company only two things will change’. The first was we had to discuss any new models the company would offer, and the second was to have a different discounting policy that is fair to everyone. Instead of customers being able to negotiate a deal, we established a fixed price policy. So, whether you are ‘Fred in a shed’ or Rolls-Royce, everybody pays the same.”

In fact, the policy is written in the company’s catalogue. ‘The XYZ price promise: we believe above all in fairness and treating customers as you would like to be treated. You can rest assured that the price you pay is the price every company pays. Big, small, new or regular, every customer pays the same. Our price negotiation policy is simple and straightforward, XYZ promises that everybody gets our best price automatically, every time’.

For around a decade Nigel Atherton operated the business with Rich Leonard, introducing around eight new models in that period, including the LTY Y-axis range of turning centres and large volume VMCs. “One thing I wanted to do,” he says, “was to bring in 5-axis machining capabilities. I was given a choice, 5-axis or big VMCs. We chose the big machines because it was a less complicated product that was more aligned with our other products at the time.”

In 2016, Rich Leonhard looked to retire with the sale of Southwestern Industries and, although only 55, Nigel Atherton thought long and hard about hanging his boots up. “I had enjoyed the 10 years with Rich at the helm, and I certainly didn’t want a new boss. However, I was given the opportunity to buy the business back, so I seized it. Now I am here for the long term, and I am really enjoying it.”
Since regaining ownership, he has made two major changes, with the long-awaited launch into the 5-axis machining market and the introduction of a range of linear rail bearings machine tools. Having first seen the 5-axis machine some 7 years ago, XYZ is now a supplier of this capability. “We visited many users in Portugal, using the UMC range and technology in mould tool shops, and also in Germany, we liked the quality and functionality of the machine tools,” Nigel Atherton recalls.

During his formative career years as an apprentice machine fitter he spent time in the design office where he was told by senior design draftsmen that putting metal into the machine tool design was the most important thing, to get a solid base structure. He says: “So, I had always been biased towards solid box-ways over linear guides. The question kept getting asked about why XYZ isn’t offering linear guide rail bearings, the same as many of our competitors. So, I bit the bullet, bought some machines fitted with linear rails and we did extensive cutting tests and the results were very impressive.

“What we found changed my mind, linear rail roller bearing technology is at such an advanced stage we can now offer a high-level machine that is aerospace capable, the 1060 HS. It features the same bearings used by the German and Japanese premium machine tool suppliers. We also introduced a linear bearing range that is not as heavy duty, for the general precision engineering sector.”

He continues: “In the first 10 months of launching the range, over 100 machines were installed, and we were delighted. Our thoughts were if we sell 100 of them then the heavier cutting box-way machines would probably reduce by about 50%, but it has not. We have only seen a reduction of about 10% so it seems we have found a whole new market where the customers are concerned about price. It is proven by the fact that our previous best-selling machine, a box-way 560 Minimill, has been dropped because the people that were buying that on price can achieve a saving of 15 to 20% with the new 500LR or the larger 750LR.”

Future trends launching now
Having dipped its business toes in the water of 3D printing with Hewlett Packard, the company felt that it was not the right product for its plans and has refocused on its core business. “That’s not to say we are not thinking ahead for our customers,” Nigel Atherton points out. “We are developing, in conjunction with a company in Manchester, what we are going to call a Robo-Tend for the automated loading and unloading of VMCs or turning centres. It is portable and you can use the same robot to put in front of a turning centre or a machining centre so you can move it between manufacturing cells. There is about a day’s worth of integration work on the machine but once done the customer can move it from one machine to another without any real effort.”

Launching this summer, the Robo-Tend addresses the multitude of issues for companies struggling to get good staff. It operates by a drawer cassette system, with the robot locked in position a trolley of drawers full of raw billets is loaded and the robot picks the material and loads a vice, relocating it as many times as required until a finished component is finally put back in the drawer. The second drawer can hold different components with a new CNC program called in automatically. Unlike many systems the new Robo-Tend will use a vision system so even billets that are skewed can be loaded.

When the drawers are all full of completed workpieces they can simply be wheeled away. “You can also access the drawers from the operator’s side, without interrupting the robot, so if you have one finished component you need desperately you can remove it from the drawer,” explains Nigel Atherton.

The investment can give you three shifts per day, 365 days per year. “The numbers are incredible,” says Nigel Atherton. “It will pay for itself in months. It will cost about £2 per hour to run and that’s not even on 3 shifts, because realistically most people are going to run it double shift and probably 6 or 7 days per week.”

Under control
The first quarter of 2019 witnessed the launch of the latest range of ProtoTRAK controls. “ProtoTRAK is an important part of XYZ and the new RX range, RLX for the lathe and the RMX for the mill, offers a number of key advantages. And, anyone that can program a ProtoTRAK and there are probably 15,000 in the UK, can program this straightaway. In fact, they will find it a lot easier because it is touch screen. We have always had DXF file capability but it needed a mouse or a computer, now we can put the DXF drawing on the screen and because its touch screen, if you want to cut that profile just touch once, the second will do the chain and program the whole profile. Depending on if you pick left or right it will machine clockwise or anticlockwise around the profile,” Nigel Atherton states.

XYZ Machine Tools buys CNC controls direct from Siemens UK with 100% local support from the control manufacturer. Certain machines in the range (Heavy-Duty VMCs and UMC 5-axis machining centres) are also available with Heidenhain controls as a standard option. Every XYZ machine fitted with a Siemens or Heidenhain control undergoes a 168-hour test, running non-stop for 7 days. As Nigel Atherton explains: “Historically, we might have had customers who had problems in the first month. We would fix the issue and the machine then runs problem free for years. Well, we shouldn’t be having problems, and effectively our test is doing a month’s worth of work without breaks. This has resulted in a massive fall in our service warranty issues. And, the customer gets a machine tool that can hit the ground and start producing reliably.”

Having just wrapped up its best business year ever, according to Nigel Atherton the 100-strong company is set for consolidation over the next year or two. He says: “We have 14 people in sales and European business has grown to becoming around 15% of our total. However, we have 17 service engineers and we are looking for some trainees for routine support, commissioning and standard servicing,” he says. “Our customer service team of 10 people includes application engineering and technical telephone support for ProtoTRAK because we are very focused on this part of the business. Your sales team wins the first order, your service and application support help win the second and third.”

Around £2 million worth of parts are kept in the stores with 4 people looking after the logistics of picking and packing. “When going into a market the last thing you want is for a customer to breakdown and you haven’t got the parts,” he says. “So, when we launched the 5-axis machine we bought ball screws, contactors, spindles, spindle motors, parts of tool changers - every conceivable spare to ensure we can keep the customers running. With 35 years in business we are proud of both product and the support we provide.”

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